It was Oxygen that first drew my attention. The radio was playing in the background and before I knew it, I had left my spoon mid-air and dinner cold, trying to fit my head inside the tuner and find out where the hell that mesmerising song came from. Believe me, it doesn’t happen every day. In fact, the rarity of this occurrence has since taught me that it is a sure sign something big is going on.
Willy Mason’s reputation started picking up dramatically after his SXSW performance in March. Music execs rushed to claim ownership of the discovery. And he’d only been on the road for four months. How did a nineteen-year-old with such an apparent naive disregard for the industry rules manage to stir so much attention? His approach to life and career, as well as his lyrics are disarmingly innocent, unassuming and uncompromising and yet achieve more that cynics would care to admit they’d die for. His openness has landed him with the protective friendship of all the good kids of this world, including Conor Oberst signing him to his brand new label Team Love and Ben Kweller offering him a support slot on his international tour. One can be tempted to blame his success on his youth and want to wait until he has been broken. It is true, we do not know what the future holds, whether he is going to turn into a jaded country music machine, a bitter yuppie with a pretension to art or an out-of-touch bearded hippy with chronic ranting diarrhoea. But for now, from the top of a world of infinite possibilities, he and his music shine. Do not miss it.
LB: So, how did it all start?
Everything has happened in the last year. I had a friend who’d heard me on a local radio station and told me “Willy, you really got to hear this guy Conor Oberst”, whom he was friends with. I’d never heard his music. He invited me to a show in Northampton, I hung out with the band backstage afterwards and played them a song. Then they invited me out to the bar with them even though I was still underage. The next thing I know I woke up on a tour bus. Conor was playing a show that night in Vermont, and without any warning, he invited me on stage to play a song. It was Oxygen.
LB: Tell us a bit more about Oxygen
I wrote the basis of it a year and half ago when I was in high school. The first verse wasn’t really planned out. It took me a long time to write the second verse. Now there is a new one, which I always play live and which is different from the recorded one. Inspiration hit me when I was doing stonemasonry. I was driving a Bobcat tractor. I was very bad at what I was doing, it wasn’t terribly interesting. Fortunately I realised I could sing and no one could hear me over the noise of the machine. That’s how I wrote that second verse. After the song was done I was so happy about it I told my boss and he said, “No wonder you’re fucking up all the time!
LB: I believe both your parents are musicians. How did they influence your songwriting ?
I am hugely influenced by them, so their music is similar to mine. Both play blues, folk, old country, but they each have their own flavour. My mum is more to the blues world, her biggest early influence was Bessie Smith. My dad turned me on to Johnny Cash and Willy Nelson. Between the two of them sits Hank Williams. They also each have their distinct style of writing songs. My mum writes in the moment: she’ll write once, it will just come out of her and she’ll rarely go back and rewrite, whereas my dad has a slightly more methodical approach to it. He is really good with words, finding the right rhyme, rewriting and editing. He’s learnt thousands of old folk songs through his own dad and he is a writer too. Both these approaches have influenced me. When I first started I needed a band so I asked my brother to play drums, my dad played bass and my mum played guitar. It can be a delicate relationship when you bring a family into a band especially since my parents had split up. The rehearsal became like a microcosm of everyone’s relationships. But I learned a lot from it and we all got closer.
LB: Do you feel comfortable showing them your songs ?
A lot of my lyrics are personal and suggestive. Because my parents are so close to me, whenever I would play them a new song they would tend to analyse how I was feeling which made it hard to share it with them sometimes but it never was to the point that I couldn’t. Usually they were the first ones to hear most of my songs. Sometimes my dad would even give writing suggestions, but I’ve usually dismissed them, immature adolescent fashion I suppose.
LB: So what is it like to be a kid growing up in such a creative environment ?
I was born in New York where my parents had a lot of musician friends, so I used to play round a bit. But then we moved to a bigger house in Martha’s Vineyard, an island off the coast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. My whole family would come from the West Coast, NYC, Boston; there were huge singalong parties, everyone played something, mandolins, pan drums, Irish drums, my uncle used to always bring this massive jug which had its real deep sound. Even people who didn’t play would sing along or bang our tables. I would sit on the couch and doze off, absorb some of the alcohol in the air. And the music vibe of course.
LB: Then it was your turn to go out into the big world. How did that happen ?
I graduated high school last year. There was a point when I was really going to go to college, but last minute I decided to take a year off to travel because I grew up in such an isolated community I really wanted to see some more of the countries first hand. I found that although at points I was really into the work I was doing at school, my attention and my interest in learning things third hand started leaving me really distracted. I wanted to experience things more directly so I decided to postpone it.
By the time I did that first gig with Oberst, I had made my decision. I wanted to leave myself more freedom to pursue opportunities as they popped up and not feel like I always had to have some kind of restrictions in the back of my mind of where I had to be at a certain time. For a while after that, I travelled around, gigs kept popping up through people who were enthusiastic about the music, passing CDs around. Things kept progressing naturally without me making any strong push or me making any decisions to change my way of living.
Recently it started dawning on me “I am here in England, talking to all these record labels, this is for real!” but I still have managed to maintain the same kind of attitude, because I didn’t go out asking for any of this, I can take it as it comes and follow up on the things that interest me.
LB: You are touring a lot at the moment, and I hear you want to hit the road when you go back to the US, with your own van, is that right ?
Yes, I just bought a diesel van, which I am going to convert to run off restaurant grease ! I don’t think that form of energy is going to take off because the oil companies have so much to lose, but it makes so much sense. A lot of people talk about it, and I figure I’ll be the one to actually try it. Good thing is, McDonalds are pretty popular so I should never run out! I guess I am trying to live as cheaply as I can, I get lot more freedom that way.
LB: How does touring affect your creativity ?
For a lot of bands, touring is the work, and so they try to get the tour done as efficiently and as proactively as possible. They play every single night because they’re spending money on their van, on their driver, and they want to go home as soon as they can. But for me, I don’t really have a home, I am not going to pay for a driver or gas. The way that it would be inspiring is if I could spend at least three nights, maybe a week, maybe more in each town that I go to, so that I’m immersed in a scene, a culture and draw from that. I have noticed being on the road, opening for people who tour in the traditional sense, a show a night can be stifling, because you spend most of your time on a tour bus, which can be a comfortable, but not very inspiring place.
LB: Your new LP will be released on Team Love, Conor Oberst new label. Can you tell us a bit more about it ?
Team Love is like a little brother to Saddle Creek. Now that Conor is living in New York, It is a way for him to pick up on projects that he likes and be able to put them out straight away, rather than having to cater to other people’s tastes. At the moment, it is a two-man project, him and Nate. They’ve just released the first album by a band called Tilly and the Wall who are awesome! Then it will be mine in September. The business relationship is very casual and based on friendship and respect. They let me sleep on their couches, showed me round the city and played me good CDs!
LB: your lyrics are very personal but there is also a recurrent theme, a concern about the nature of humankind…
Actually, the new album is going to be called “Where the Humans Eat”. When I was going to go to college, I wanted to study anthropology and history, that is mainly because of my dad who turned me on to great anthropologists like Marvin Harris. It was that stuff that really kept me optimistic as things started getting really scary on the TV. I was able to put things in a bigger context without feeling everything was going straight to shit.
LB: You have a pretty good team supporting you, yet you are able to retain most of the control. What’s your secret ?
It is amazing how the people who have found me have got the right attitude. The way I ended up with these people is by approaching everything less as business but more as a personal relationship. I don’t try to put up any airs, being anymore business savvy or slick than I am because I’m not, I could be duped really easily. But the more upfront about that, the more open I am, the more I tend to attract people that would have an equal outlook. I hear them out and treat them like a friend, some friends you make and some friends you just can’t communicate with them properly. So by letting go of control I ended up with a lot more than most people have. It’s a hard hand to hold that is looking for control…